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A Quickie Evangelical Introduction
to the so-called “new perspective on Paul”

by Mark Horne

I have entitled this super-condensed piece to capture interest, but the fact is it sets forth what I have believed and taught long before I had ever heard of the so-called “new perspective.” For example, one can look at my paper on Ephesians 2.15, written before I had ever read What Saint Paul Really Said by N. T. Wright, and long before I ever read a single word by James D. G. Dunn or E. P. Sanders. By 1995 I had come to the strong suspicion that Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians was not against those who thought one could earn salvation by good works, but against those who wanted to demand that Gentiles must become Jews before gaining all the privileges of fellowship in the Church. This had nothing to do with any alleged evidence from “Second-Temple Judaism” but simply a study of the text itself (see Tim Gallant’s argument, for example). None of this at all implies a denial that justification is a forensic verdict, that it is based on the obedience and suffering of Christ imputed to sinners, that justification is only by faith, and that justification is distinct from sanctification, etc.

copyright © 2003

The Bible gives us a basic story about God as Creator, and we as sinful creatures who will be called to give an account one day, and who need an advocate who has paid our debts and reconciled us to God if we wish to be vindicated on the day of final judgment. In the age of the New Testarment writings, the apostles declared salvation (i.e. deliverance, rescue) was available in (and only in) Jesus Christ.

But the New Testament gives us a picture of salvation that includes more than rescue from the wrath to come at the end of history. To explain how this works, lets look at three ways in which the Hebrew Scriptures unfold our problem.

  1. IN THE GARDEN: When Adam and Eve sinned against God they also declared war on one another. Adam remained silent while the serpent tempted Eve and allowed her to eat the forbidden fruit without interference. Only after she had eaten and lived did he take any from her and eat himself. Adam has all the markings of the original abusive husband who uses his wife for his own ends. Obviously, Adam’s alienation from God entailed alienation from his wife. Sin not only means judgment; it means division and strife–the war of all against all.
  2. CAIN & ABEL: In the next generation we see sin take more of a toll on the human race and another Fall both between God and man and between man and man. Cain’s refusal to worship God properly results not only in God’s refusal to accept his sacrifice, but also in his murdering Abel his brother.
  3. THE TOWER OF BABEL: When Cain built his city, God allowed him to do so with the result that the line of Cain prospered and eventually seduced all the line of Seth except for Noah. After the flood God promised that he would never destroy the world in the flood again. This meant that when Nimrod led mankind in building the tower and city of Babel, God could not permit the wickedness to go unchecked. He had to judge them early in a moderate way so that he would not have to destroy them entirely later on. God descended to the tower and caused them all to speak different languages. The different nations of the earth have their origin not in natural dispersion and migration patterns as human populations developed on their own, but rather in the curse of God due to sin. Once again, sin leads to division–in this case ethnic and cultural division.

Jesus Christ came to save us from sin, which means he came to save us from not only the wrath to come, but also from this maze of divisions and enmities which sin has produced. Jesus cannot fail to bring about this liberation! His very name means “God saves,”–as the angel said: “You shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1.21).

When Jesus reconciled us on the cross, he could not fail to reconcile us both to God and to one another. Paul actually points out that Jesus’ atoning work (at-one-ing) unites us all in one body:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands–remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Ephesians 2.11-16).

Jesus came to reconcile sinners to God and one another. He came to undue the curse of man rebelling against his creator, husband mistreating wife, brother killing brother, and nation misunderstanding nation. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplished this. Unity among Christians is not some optional extra. It is salvation.

This unity especially involves a reconciliation of the nations both with God and with one another, a reconciliation that especially began with the Israel and the other nations. The reason for this, as mentioned above, is found especially in the story of the Tower of Babel:

Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

The nations of the world with their differing customs and languages did not originate in the natural migration of various populations. Rather, they came from God’s judgment on sin.

The very next story in the Bible is the story of Abram (later named: Abraham):

the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12.1-3).

Abraham was called and chosen in the aftermath of the ruin of the tower of Babel. The builders of Babel worked hard to “make for ourselves a name” but God graciously promised to Abraham that he would “make your name great.” God divided the families of the earth into different languages and nations, but God next promised Abraham that they would all be blessed “in you.”

Abraham was the father of Israel and God gave Israel a law that required them to remain distinct from the other nations (“Gentiles”). This was not because God hated the other nations but because he loved them: He had chosen one nation (Israel) to be the priestly nation to all the others: “if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19.5-6).

The point of all this, is that, once Jesus suffered, died, and rose again from the grave, he put an end to this whole arrangement by fulfilling its purpose. He dealt with the sin that had been the cause of the division of humanity and he fulfilled the priestly work that God had promised would be done through Abraham’s seed.

As a result, the proclamation of the Gospel entails the re-uniting of the human race. The miracle of Pentecost when each person heard God praised by the Church in the local dialect of his hometown is proof of this (Acts 2). The special status of Israel has served God’s purpose, and now both Jew and Gentile were being made into one new man (Ephesians 2.15).

And this new unity is not limited to Jew and Gentile; it applies to all ethnic divisions:

Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him–a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3.9-11).

The Gospel demands a community in which nationalities and cultures are regarded as unimportant in comparison to faith in Christ.

To review: Israel was a special nation formed as a result of the curse on the Tower of Babel that divided the human race into different language groups, not to the exclusion of other nations from salvation, but in order to minister to them as a priestly nation. Sin, in bringing enmity between man and God, also brought enmity between man and man. Thus, the Gospel brings unity where formerly there was division:

  1. It brings reconciliation between sinfully separated people and groups.
  2. It broke down the Jew/Gentile distinction because–once Christ completed his life, death, and new life from the grave at God’s right hand–the nations were now to all become one in the transnational institution that Christ established: His body the Church.
  3. This brings us to a place where we might look anew at what Paul means when he claims that justification (being declared right with God; being vindicated as one of God’s children against all claims to the contrary including one’s own sin) is only by faith “apart from works of the Law.” The common assumption has been that what Paul has in mind are those who attempt to earn God’s favor by offering him their good deeds as a kind of bribe. But is this really what Paul is dealing with?

Before going any farther, let me emphasize that trying to win God’s favor by our good works is blasphemy against God. Even our best works are so corrupt that, if God judged us by them, we would be sentenced to everlasting condemnation. Paul is quite clear that our only hope is that God graciously “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4.5; c.f. Ephesians 2.8-9; Titus 3.2-7). The Protestant view, that justification is only received by faith in God and what he has done in Jesus Christ, is quite Biblical.

However, when Paul speaks of his own pre-Christian attempt to have a righteousness from the Law of Moses, he lists things that were never a result of his own moral decisions. In addition to some things that might be claimed as his own good works, for example, he mixes in the fact that he was born a Jew, born of the tribe of Benjamin, and that he was circumcised on the eighth day (Philippians 3.2ff). Plainly, Paul is not claiming simply that he was once trying to be good enough to earn salvation. He is claiming that his status as a faithful Israelite counted as nothing in comparison to his new status as one who trusted in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Both in Philippians and Galatians, the issue is never laid out as a choice between being justified only by faith and being justified only by general works of morality. The “works of the law” are rather more specific. For example, Paul rebukes the Galatians: “You observe days and months and seasons and years” (4.10). Circumcision, dietary laws, and the Old Testament calendar of holy days are the issue, not abstract good deeds.

The evidence here and elsewhere seems to indicate that Paul was condemning divisions in the Church based on whether or not one was a Jew rather than a Gentile. The Galatians were being told that they needed to become Jews in order to fully become God’s covenant people. In the Galatian church, Christian Jews were refusing to eat with Christian Gentiles acting as if the traditional laws separating Jews from Gentiles applied in the Church. Paul saw this as a denial of the Gospel. The finished work of Christ entails that Jew and Gentile are one (Ephesians 2.11ff) and the Gospel message is that they are now one rather than Jews as primary and God-fearing Gentiles as second-class citizens (Ephesians 3.1ff; Galatians 3.8).

What does this mean?

First of all, it does mean that condemning believers because they have not done enough good works is a heinous offense to God and a denial of the Gospel. Forgiveness of sins by the gratuitous mercy of God, while ultimately revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the uniform message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. We all need to be rebuked when we sin, but if we are repentant believers, we cannot be condemned (Romans 8.1, 31-39). Faith alone is sufficient for justification.

But secondly, it also means that divisions within the Church membership based on race, color, sex, accent, original hometown, income level, spiritual maturity, etc, are wicked in God’s sight. The fact that Sunday morning is the most racially and socio-economically segregated time of the week in the U.S. may indicate that those of us who are American Protestants don’t understand the Gospel as well as they would like to think they do.

copyright © 2003

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